In a true-crime landscape of Serial and Making a Murderer there's absolutely no better time for Deborah Esquenazi's documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four. Similar to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost series with its exploration of small town conservatism and a group of outcasts accused of a heinous crime with little evidence, Esquenazi's documenting of the women collectively known as the San Antonio Four infuriates and terrifies in equal measure. With the case still being investigated currently the story is only beginning...
In 2000 four women were accuses of sexually assaulting two little girls left in the care of one of the alleged suspects. Despite questionable evidence, the women were all convicted to lengthy sentences despite professing their innocence for over fifteen years.
Like Berlinger and Sinofsky's trio of documentaries, Southwest of Salem wastes no time accusing the San Antonio court system of gross malfeasance to secure a conviction due to the women being easy targets: low-income Hispanic lesbians. Despite good intentions and unwilling to disbelieve the child victims, the prosecutors relied on "forensic evidence" considered junk science today, and the spotty testimony of two children whose story had more holes than Swiss cheese. Whether the women committed the actual crime is irrelevant by the end of Esqueanzi's documentary; it was the fact the presumed evidence against them boiled down to "lesbians rape children."
Esquenzai creates an economical documentary that wastes no time and fleshes out a decades-stemming story over a lean 90 minutes. The court case is really an opening towards a more systemic attack of the homophobia that, in many ways, still lives in Texas today. One of the accused's mother's admits she questioned whether she could love her daughter despite her child's sexuality, while another says her family flatout disowned her; the court itself was unable to find non-homophobic jurors. The burden of evidence in the case devolved into attacking the women's lifestyles in another case of women in the judicial system being guilty until proven innocent.
While the suspects on trial are women, it's hard ignoring how close the case mimics how rape cases are prosecuted today, with past history being brought up, the questions of what makes a suspect credible and "forensic evidence." The latter is laughable to women today - bringing up questions of "what makes a virgin" - and proves this case, above all, is a critique of femininity.
Much time is spent with the San Antonio Four, and while all documentaries surrounding convicted felons leaves you questioning authenticity, their candor mixed with the lack of police work only aids in your desire to see them vindicated. All four women have distinct personalities and families that have been ripped apart, and whether they're guilty or not they more than deserved a fair trial. The lingering court issues that continue today almost looks like sour grapes from the San Antonio court system as opposed to a desire for true justice. So much of the film almost demands a feminist lens with its discussions, right down to the little girls' story sounding like "a man's version of what women do in their spare time."
The latter half deals with one of the accused's, Anna Vasquez, parole. It casts a light on how precious freedom is, and the culture shock Anna experiences leads to a few rare moments that pass for levity as she wonders what a router is. All the women seem appreciative of what they have, and it's remarkable that they're able to stay upbeat and aren't bitter by their plight, even when one of the victims recants her story.
The group is currently taking a gamble on asking for exoneration, losing could mean they'll go back to prison, but by the end it's all worth it. Southwest of Salem is a documentary gutpunch that demands to be seen, particularly by women. The film's lens of being a modern-day witch hunt is appropriate and demands attention.